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Digital haze clouds guild’s forecast

Org appears low-key as negotiations loom

“We’ve got this young chap named Spielberg who’s just joined the DGA’s Western Council,” notes Directors Guild of America president Michael Apted in a recent interview. “Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s done a few things.”

This kind of subdued name-dropping is typical for the DGA, now celebrating its 70th anniversary, as it strives to at least appear low-key, even as an array of emerging digital platforms cloud film and TV futures for which guild contracts must soon be negotiated.

“There’s clearly a lot of stuff being thrown against the wall to see what’s going to stick,” Apted notes. “The fact that we see announcements every other day — does that mean that the business is going to change quickly or is it a cosmetic thing?”

The DGA’s current deal with studios and networks expires in June 2008; so does the Screen Actors Guild’s. As usual, studio and network execs are expected to cry poverty and contend that the new media platforms aren’t making them any money at this point.

“Nobody seems to know what the dominant platform is going to be, so it is very challenging,” Apted says. “It seems to us it’s pretty complicated, and it’s probably very complicated to the other side. But I don’t believe there’s an urgency — we shouldn’t be forced into adopting positions or trying to see what’s going to happen. It’s very frustrating for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that the whole contemplation of these negotiations has to be jumpstarted.”

Apted, who’s a few months away from completing his second two-year term as DGA president, still has to go through the multi-step process of assembling a negotiating committee.

Negotiations probably won’t start until late this year. Scheduling will be affected by the Writers Guild of America, which has said it won’t be ready for its negotiations until July. The WGA’s contract expires on Halloween, and its talks are expected to be scary contentious, in no small part because of the WGA leaders’ well-known penchant for fiery rhetoric.

That’s led to speculation that the DGA may make a deal to ensure Hollywood labor peace before the WGA contract expires, or that the WGA may try extending its deal so that it ends June 30, 2008, just like the DGA and SAG contracts do. That latter scenario — refered to by some as “the perfect storm” –would give the three guilds enough clout to extract major concessions from studios and networks.

What’s the DGA’s take?

“It’s crazy for me to comment about the WGA,” Apted responds. “It’s complicated stuff. We don’t want to negotiate in public, and we don’t want to discuss our sister guilds in public.”

Beyond new media-related issues, Apted is also concerned about an “alarming” trend favoring non-union labor in reality TV.

“We’ve done a very good job at network television — we’ve organized over 100 shows, but it’s very hard in basic cable. It’s very emotional and upsetting when you see our members lose work because they stay with the guild. And they may face the choice of leaving the guild in order to keep working.”

And he’s especially distressed over the hostility toward the guilds in the non-union realm. “It’s certainly a cancer within the industry,” Apted muses. “We bend over backwards to plant our flag, and we have agreements for everything. And a lot of people are hostile to guilds — there’s definitely a feeling that it’s better to keep away. A lot of that is through ignorance.”

Apted notes that key areas that may come up in negotiations include more explicit language covering post-production on tentpole-type films and tightened schedules on episodic television.

“There’s more and more pressure on directors to deliver on time and under budget,” he adds. “And negotiations are complicated because you find you’ve got a thousand things that you want to talk about.”

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